In this heady age of information—and misinformation—Keith Jarrett is more than a living legend: he is one of our last remaining myths. As one of the leading musicians of his generation, Jarrett has dazzled audiences around the world for five decades on a number of instruments and in a number of styles, though he is best known for his improvisatory prowess. While ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl and others have observed that improvisation is virtually universal among the world’s musical cultures, in the post-Romantic West it has become associated with the rarefied air of the esoteric—the channeling of forces magical, dark, or divine into evanescent and even transcendent musical inspiration. Yet recent scholarship in jazz theory has done much to demystify the processes of improvisation, demonstrating the extent to which great artists rely on consistent vocabulary and even stock formulae and schemata in improvised solos (analogous to the way in which great speakers use rhetorical blueprints and idioms to extemporize powerful oratory).
Still, Jarrett’s unique talents chafe against this disrobed, instrumentalist notion of improvisation. Beyond his mastery of genre-normative small-group jazz practice—taking the melody and harmonic structure of a standard song as a frame for improvisation—Jarrett became particularly well-known for solo recitals of completely extemporized music: as close to “pure” inspiration as it gets. (His 1975 release The Köln Concert, the most famous example of these performances, was a smash crossover hit and the best-selling album of his career.) The frequent expressions of Gurdjieffian spirituality in his interviews and writings, as well as his neurotic stage antics (e.g. audibly grunting and pelvic thrusting while performing), have only amplified his reputation as mystic shaman-savant, with one foot on this earthly plane and the other . . . somewhere else. He even boasts a Romantic Great Struggle to boot: during the mid-'90s he dealt with a bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which left him bedridden and unable to play a note for years—a Beethovenian deafness for the modern age.
A Multitude of Angels, Jarrett’s latest release on the ECM label, represents a landmark in Jarrett’s career for a number of reasons. A four-disc set, the album consists of four live solo sets recorded between October 23–30, 1996 in concert across Italy. (Each disc is named after the city of the corresponding recital: Modena, Ferrara, Torino, and Genova, respectively.) These sets were the last long-form solo improvisation concerts he ever gave; more recent performances/releases like 2006’s The Carnegie Hall Concert also feature fully-improvised material, but these all contain set breaks and divide into separate “tracks” or “songs.” As Jarrett details in the unexpectedly poignant liner notes, these concerts hold a special place in his own conception of his output. Jarrett himself served as audio engineer and producer on these recordings, and he explains in detail how his careful close-miking of the piano enabled him to better capture the refined subtleties of his keyboard artistry: warmth, overtones, depth and presence of sound. At this point he was already experiencing the debilitating effects of what would eventually be diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and during sound checks he ran back and forth between the piano and the mixing board while battling “constant nausea.” Likely because of their association with his illness, he found these recordings too painful to listen to, and only now, after twenty years, did Jarrett allow himself to reexamine them, deciding to release them.
Given the backstory behind the album’s creation and release, it is no wonder that Jarrett describes A Multitude of Angels as a “major event” in his life, but he even goes further than that in the liner notes, claiming that the four concerts “represent the ‘pinnacle’ of [his] career.” I read the liner notes before listening to the album, and admittedly I met that claim with a fair amount of skepticism. From his beginnings in the 1960s as an avant-garde enfant terrible, through his forays into long-form improvisation, as well as classical musical cultures both East and West in the 1970s, and finally into the recent decades of synergistic straight-ahead mastery with his famous Standards Trio (with Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Peacock on bass), Jarrett’s artistry has been defined by such probing curiosity and depth of insight—not to mention stylistic eclecticism—that it almost seems as though the notion of a single central organizing principle or narrative for his output, let alone a “pinnacle” thereof, would be totally inapplicable. His career topography is more mountain range than mountain.
And yet, after spending some weeks with A Multitude of Angels, I’m surprised to say I agree. What Jarrett does over the span of these four concerts, essentially, is take you on a walking tour of the entire range of his mountainous lexicon, simultaneously expansive (to experience each and every nook and cranny of his stylistic omnivorousness) and intimate (distilled to the quick; arrestingly fluffless). While my love for this recording still cannot compete with the depths of feeling for older flames like 1994’s Live at the Blue Note, 1999’s The Melody at Night With You, and 2007’s My Foolish Heart, which I have lived with long enough for them to have been seminal, formational musical texts in my life, A Multitude of Angels represents an entirely different kind of achievement. In its variety of expression, the quasi-didactic probing into the history of American music, the clarity and fervor of the musical ideas, the yin-yang navigation of solemnity and whimsy, of acerbic atonality and mellifluous diatonicity, of idiomatic mastery and idiosyncratic explorations, it is unmatched in Jarrett’s output, and I am hard-pressed to find any peers among other achievements of twentieth-century artists.
To cut to the chase: this album is stunning. Buy it. Listen to it. Live with it, languorously.
One of the album’s most profound delights is the strong individual character and identity of each of the four recitals within. Each disc has a symphonic, epic sweep all its own, while also comprising one movement of the larger five-hour “meta-symphony” of the entire album. Each time I return to the album for another listening, I find myself craving one pocket or another—sometimes I will listen to one disc several times in a row, other times I will create a new “playlist” jockeying between the different evenings. Frequently I indulge the impulse to rewind an indeterminate amount, eager to re-experience a particularly powerful (but deliciously fuzzily bordered) expanse.
Given the staggering breadth of the musical language spanned across the four discs, I can imagine that not every listener will be enraptured all the way through. In each concert, Jarrett spins a musical tapestry afresh, and it leads him to some lengthy decampments in some far-flung tonal or motivic pocket or another. But the flip side is that there is something here for everyone. Fans of every different “era” of Jarrett’s career will find their tastes well-represented: meditative Eastern-inspired reveries over left hand drones, spiky avant-garde brashness, the pop-tinged sweetness (almost cloyingly earnest at times) reminiscent of The Köln Concert, the deft stacked-triad harmonic imagination common to his approach to standards, and historically-minded forays into Bachian counterpoint and even classic boogie-woogie. Three of the four concerts captured on these recordings featured an encore or two, and these short, well-knit tracks make a particularly striking impression, contrasting with the lengthy musical expanses that precede them. Of all his prodigious gifts, Jarrett’s ballad playing is particularly renowned, and his achingly beautiful renditions of “Danny Boy” (encore on Disc 1, “Modena”) and “Over the Rainbow” (second encore on Disc 4, “Genova”) are practically worth the price of the album all on their own.
A Multitude of Angels is, moreover, noteworthy for the extent to which Jarrett mines the resources of his instrument. Jarrett is one of jazz’s great technical masters, with commanding control at high velocity and capable of arresting nuances of voicing and shading in even the densest of textures. When watching Jarrett live or on video, part of the thrill is the head-scratching juxtaposition of the exquisiteness of the sound produced against the wild, primal muscularity of his stage presence, a dimension absent from his recordings save for the intrusion of his trademark grunts, groans, and screeches in excited moments. In this album, all the prodigious technical gifts are on display, and every nook and cranny of the piano is not only explored, but lived with. The expansive length of the improvisations allows Jarrett to spend minutes at a time in the very highest and lowest reaches of the instrument’s range, and thanks to Jarrett’s sensitive production and engineering, better headphones and sound systems will allow the listener to hear shadings and overtones that most recordings are truly never able to access. Even beyond Jarrett's improvisational feat, we get to experience the piano in all its expressive, orchestral glory, the piano as experienced and imagined by one of its greatest fingersmiths.
The achievement of the performances on this album is so monumental that one finds oneself entangled in mental gymnastics to make sense of it—or more precisely, to make less sense of it. Faced with improvisations of such virtuosity, imagination, and structural integrity, even practitioners will be tempted by the narrative of Jarrett as a magical, mystical one-off, reaching heights inaccessible to mere mortals. (My own jazz piano teacher in high school once said to me: “Some players make you want to work, and some make you want to quit. Keith Jarrett makes you want to quit.”) And it is true that Jarrett puts more apparent distance between himself and common-practice jazz language than most, with unusually sparse recourse to idiomatic patterns and licks. Yet more than any other of Jarrett’s offerings, A Multitude of Angels gives a window into the essential rootedness of Jarrett’s craft, its foundations in tradition and listening and hard work—that is, in deep practice. The achievement of profound skill through the mundanity of practice is a kind of transcendence too, but a harder one to face than the myth of divinity. It is easier for us to write off Jarrett and other great icons as inaccessible geniuses than to confront the possibility that most of us could accomplish immense feats (in whichever desired domain) with focused, curious industriousness over long periods of time.
In the liner notes, Jarrett has this to say about the title of the album: “So: why the angels? If I was proceeding under the law of accident, I might have canceled the concerts or succumbed to self-pity considering how sick and amazingly weak I ‘seemed’ to be. Who pushed me to complete this part of my fate? The angels. They include everyone around me; the audiences, the pianos, the sickness (angel of death?), the Sonosax DAT Recorder (which had no glitches the whole time), the choice of transformer-less mikes, my manager and my wife (certainly not exactly in that order). I swear: the angels were there.” Tellingly, for Jarrett, the angels of the album’s title are not metaphorical or imaginary, but real people and contributors to his life. In this world, we look to religion and myth and lofty ideals for guidance, for rectitude, and for that something beyond the imperfections and tribulations of our real existences. But this dichotomy between transcendence and mundanity is a simple heuristic that belies the subtler, more complex truth. As Jarrett reminds us with his words and his art, we all contain multitudes, the great and the pathetic together, and whatever holiness we seek not is only accessible to us: it is us.
Michael Schachter is a composer, pianist, scholar, and teacher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.